The Sacramento Kings Achilles’ heel is apparent and concerning

Dec 27, 2023, 2:40 PM | Updated: Dec 31, 2023, 7:44 pm

Matisse Thybulle #4 of the Portland Trail Blazers is fouled by De'Aaron Fox #5 of the Sacramento Ki...

PORTLAND, OREGON - MARCH 31: Matisse Thybulle #4 of the Portland Trail Blazers is fouled by De'Aaron Fox #5 of the Sacramento Kings during the first quarter at the Moda Center on March 31, 2023 in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

(Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

The Sacramento Kings can score. That’s a known fact, considering they set the NBA record in offensive rating last season with 118.6, obviously sitting atop the league.

While their efficiency has wavered on that end to start the 2023-24 season (116.1 offensive rating, 12th in the NBA), their defensive shortcomings remain apparent.

Improving on their previously 24th-ranked defense (116.0) was a clear focus heading into the year to bolster their postseason odds. The Kings allowed 125 points or more on 21 occasions in 2022-23 and seven times through 29 games this season.

Over the last five games, Sacramento has allowed 124.0 points per game. The Washington Wizards (23rd in offensive rating) tallied 131 points, but the Kings managed 143. The Boston Celtics, who are championship favorites for a good reason, came into Golden 1 Center and put up 144.

After that point, they managed two solid defensive performances against the Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves, but their evident weakness reared its head once against Tuesday night in Portland.

The Trail Blazers came into the night averaging 108 points per game (29th in the NBA) and were without two starters, Shaedon Sharpe and Deandre Ayton. Yet, they scored a season-high 130 points on 50 percent from the field.

“Obviously, we didn’t do a good job defensively. That’s been our Achilles’ heel for a while now,” Sacramento Kings head coach Mike Brown said postgame. “We didn’t show up, especially on the defensive end of the floor, and you’ve got to tip your hat off to them.”

Brown’s frustration was apparent when speaking with reporters in Portland.

We’re not where we need to be defensively on a consistent basis. We’ve shown flashes of it,” Brown continued.

The Sacramento Kings have the same five defensive staples as last season: communication, ball pressure, not allowing the opposition middle, being physical without fouling, and providing multiple efforts. Those fundamental principles have been lacking far too often this season.

Specifically against Portland, Brown expressed concern regarding their attention to detail in some aspects. Their help-side defense (low-man), categorized under multiple efforts and communication, was subpar for most of the game, allowing 60 points in the paint.

In the clips above, there were countless easy finishes at the rim after getting past the initial perimeter defender. Nobody is without blame after this one. The same was true for their ‘no middle’ principle.

Their players have been conditioned to deny the middle of the floor, limit the opposition’s options, and allow subsequent simplified, drilled, and expected rotations to occur.

“The thing that worries me is some of the stuff that we drill, that we’ve been drilling since training camp,” Brown said. “Some of those basic things that we gave up tonight defensively are what’s worrisome. I believe that we’ll obviously fix them and do better, but for us to come out and play the way we did on that end of the floor is not good.”

Just over 37 percent of their opponent’s attempted field goals come within six feet of the rim, the sixth most in the NBA, per NBA StatsOnly the Indiana Pacers (28th in defensive rating), Washington Wizards (30th), Portland Trail Blazers (18th), Atlanta Hawks (27th), and Detroit Pistons (26th) allow a higher percentage of attempts in that area.

For some teams, like the Philadelphia 76ers, funneling players into an elite rim protector like Joel Emiid makes sense. Obviously, Sacramento does not have that luxury on their roster and, therefore, has allowed teams to convert 64.1 percent of said looks (7th highest rate in the NBA) — not ideal.

Brown also mentioned the importance of knowing their personnel and following the game plans attached to each specific player. Every game day, the coaching staff labels which opposing players are ‘hot’ and ‘not hot’ before relaying that information to their players.

Closing out hard and running a ‘hot’ player off the three-point line is essential. But, executing that coverage on a ‘not hot’ shooter can put their help side defense in a compromising position and has been the case too often to start the year.

On Tuesday night, one of their other primary defensive shortcomings came in the form of transition defense. Turning the ball over 12 times certainly doesn’t help, and the Trail Blazers converted 18 points off those mishaps.

“We have to keep understanding that it’s a process,” Brown said of their defense. “We’ve got to go back, we’ve got to watch the film. We’ve got to see what we did wrong as a group, and then, after, we see what we did wrong. We’ve got to practice. We’ve got to drill it. We’ve got to see if we can get better.”

Throughout the last five games, the Sacramento Kings’ defensive rating is 125.8, more than four points worse than Washington’s season-long, league-worst 121.3.

It’s a shame that their defensive struggles are a necessary highlight on a night where De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis combined for 77 points on 30/45 shooting. Fox finished the night with 43 points, eight rebounds, and four assists (and five turnovers) on 16/26 from the field, including 7/15 from three, which was a career-high in attempts and makes from beyond the arc.

Simultaneously, Sabonis managed 34 points, 12 rebounds, and five assists on 14/19 shooting. Their teammates went just 15/48 from the field en route to 36 points.

Yet, on a night where their All-Star duo both recorded season-highs in points, the other end of the floor caused those tallies to be irrelevant. Brown acknowledged their impressive scoring productions but added that Fox and Sabonis were not exempt from the group’s defensive deficiencies.

“(Fox and Sabonis), as well as the rest of the group, didn’t do a good job defending,” he stated. “I know Foxy can score. I know Sabonis can score, especially when they had the young bigs that they had out there. It’s about whether we can generate some stops as a group. Can we take care of the ball as a group? Can we not send them to the free-throw line as a group? All those things.”

If the Sacramento Kings want to make noise in the postseason, they need to find ways to improve their consistency on the defensive end of the floor. Four of the seven defenses below them are outside the play-in picture. Very few threatening teams end up ranking in the bottom ten defensively.

Sometimes, shots aren’t going to fall. That’s the nature of the game of basketball. If the Kings hope to find consistency, it must come on the other end by executing their predetermined game plans and staples for as close to 48 minutes as possible.

When is the next Sacramento Kings game?

The road trip will continue on Friday evening as Sacramento will face the Atlanta Hawks for the first time this season.

Last year, Atlanta swept the two-game series to improve to 4-0 over their past four games against the Kings. The last time Sacramento defeated the Hawks in Atlanta was November 8, 2019.

Be sure to tune in to Sactown Sports 1140 for all of your Kings vs. Hawks coverage, beginning at 3:00 PM PST on Game Night before a 4:00 PM PST tip-off from Atlanta, Georgia.

Upcoming Schedule

  • Friday, December 29th – Sacramento Kings @ Atlanta Hawks – 4:30 PM PST
  • Sunday, December 31st – Sacramento Kings @ Memphis Grizzlies – 5:00 PM PST
  • Tuesday, January 2nd – Sacramento Kings vs. Charlotte Hornets – 7:00 PM PST
  • Wednesday, January 3rd – Sacramento Kings vs. Orlando Magic – 7:00 PM PST
  • Friday, January 5th – Sacramento Kings vs. Toronto Raptors – 7:00 PM PST

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